Time for one thing: Finding the cat person within

A mother discovers that owning a pet may be good for the children, but it also has its benefits for mom.


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Inda Schaenen
February 3, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide people into two kinds and those who don't. For those who do, the inclination to set up binary people-sorting systems is irresistible:

There are people who work best with music playing in the background and people who require silence. People who get lather all over their faces while brushing their teeth and people who keep the toothpaste in their mouths. People who have no appetite in the morning and people who wake up ravenous ...

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One might continue forever. But perhaps the only important binary classification to be made for all of humankind is this one: Is she/he a cat person or a dog person?

The attendant characteristics of each type are well-known, well-documented and well-satirized by comedians and comic-strip writers. It's not necessary to belabor the canine traits admired by the dog person -- loyal, direct, kind, faithful, utilitarian, helpful, team playerish, etc. -- and the feline traits admired by the cat person -- graceful, subtle, independent, intelligent, thoughtful, mysterious, etc. Ask someone whether they're a cat person or a dog person and you know everything you need to know about that person. (The dog person won't lie, and the cat person is too proud to lie about that.) What kinds of pets people actually own have no bearing on this theory; all that matters is what they say they are. Ask yourself, and you will know yourself.

Until, that is, it's time to select the family pet and you are the parent. At this point so many other factors come into play that you may no longer have a sense that you are one kind of person or another. Living quarters may be too small for this beast, too large for that. Kids may have allergies to this or that kind of fur. Then there's the care itself. Changing soiled cage bedding? Cleaning tanks? Taking walks twice a day? Straining to hear silent feet padding about the house? All of it seems overwhelming and undesirable, particularly if you have just emerged from the waking up at night and diapering phase. The last thing you want, even if you are a dog person, say, is another companion, another life form requiring your assistance in any way. But there are the kids. And pets are good for kids. So you try to come up with a pet in spite of yourself.

Once I thought of myself as a classic dog person. Direct, shoot-from-the-hip, tell-it-like-it-is, faithful, uncomplicated -- that was me, or what I wanted to be: all dog. (Plus I was afraid of cats.) Then came a child who wanted a pet. Early on we had a rat. I had read they were educable. But the rat starting nipping our daughter and we returned it to the pet shop as snake food. Later we had fish, barely viewable through the algae build-up within the tank; they finally died of a food overdose. Then two gerbils, who one day just stopped moving and were declared dead a few days after that. Then came a series of interviews with breeders of pure-bred dogs. We failed all of the interviews. During the coldest days of 1996 we moved into a new house and started fresh. Pets were a thing of the past. We could live without interspecie relations.

In the spring after our move, as my husband was collapsing boxes in the garage, the neighborhood's feral cat leaped out of a pile of bubble wrap. My husband backed away in fear and worry, cursing the likelihood of what he would call a rat situation. But as he peered down into the box, he saw nestled in the bubble wrap three tiny newborn kittens. Naturally, our children fell in love with one, the all-black one, and began lobbying us to take her in as a pet. (Our neighbor the cat-lover, who had been feeding the feral mother for some time, brought the litter to her screened-in porch for indoctrination as potential pets. The mother has remained wild.)

As summer approached, we had to make a decision. It seemed to hinge on what I felt. Was I going to remain obstinately a dog person and deny the kitten a place in our family, blaming my long-standing yet inconclusively diagnosed allergies? Was I going to remain a dog person yet allow the kitten in anyway? Or was I going to welcome the kitten and seek the cat person within? Meanwhile, our neighbor had invited another family to choose among the kittens, and our daughter was worrying over the possibility of their selecting the all-black one, the one she wanted with her whole heart. For an hour or two of an early summer evening, the dramatic tension was palpable. Finally, with my husband's assurance that I would have no responsibility for the litter box, I allowed that adopting the kitten was fine by me.

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Now I find that a cat is a perfect pet, indeed a perfect animal. Velvet is sweet-tempered, of course, and that makes a big difference. But it's her cattiness that I admire most. She knows how to make herself comfortable and does so whenever she can. She lets you know she wants to be alone by leaving you alone. She plays with simple things like string and crinkly candy wrappers. She shows her affection freely by purring and cuddling. She travels well in a plain box lined with a towel. She eats what you set before her but is grateful to lick the interior of an emptied tuna can. She's flexible. She displays personal dignity. In short, she sets a good example for the children.

If I am reading in a chair Velvet will jump onto my lap and fall asleep, her warm heavy weight nestling just the right way to make me feel at peace with the world. It's kind of like the weight of a sleeping newborn, but without any of the angst that attaches to that experience. A cat won't catch a chill. A cat won't develop bad sleeping habits from being held through a nap. A cat won't have an explosive bowel movement all over your arm. A sneeze won't wake a cat, and even if it does, so what? A cat's just there for the moment, warm and alive and taking a nap. It can always go back to sleep someplace else.

Before dashing out to the nearest shelter, however, any prospective cat owners ought to seek the counsel of an experienced and reasonably objective cat person. Our neighbor, for example, had assured us that Velvet was in fact as sweet and intelligent as our daughter had intuited. Other cat people who have visited are equally amazed at her good nature. A dyed-in-the-wool cat person may not care about traits like gentleness, disinclination to scratch, etc. To them, all cats are great in their own way. The rest of us ought to steer clear of the less-than-ideal representative.

And what of the borders between people, the definitive labels that keep straight who's who? Do I now think of myself as a cat person? Have I crossed the line away from my decades-long association with and empathy for the dog people? The rompers, the panters, the so-glad-to-be-alive gang? Probably not. But perhaps, thanks to Velvet, I feel a little less a dog person, a little more complicated. I'm trying to make peace with mystery, to make room for grace. Pets make you own up in any number of ways, and I am happy and proud to be the owner of this particular cat. It's very nice to feel a kind of thrill when I hold her up against my cheek, stroke her soft clean fur and hear her purr. If nothing else, cats are certainly sexier than dogs, and in this way they set a good example for a mother.

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Inda Schaenen

Inda Schaenen has it all. Except Radu.

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